How to Start a Startup: How to Be a Great Founder

Entrepreneurial super powers aren’t real. And on the list of things you need to be a great founder, a cape isn’t included.

Reid Hoffman is the co-founder of LinkedIn, and honestly he may not be on your top 10 list of the most popular founders ever.

That’s because the story of LinkedIn wasn’t a viral one. It wasn’t bright, flashy, or famous either. Unlike the success of Zuckerberg, Jobs and Bezos, Hoffman and his team at LinkedIn had a less publicized journey of building their audience.

As part of Y Combinator president Sam Altman’s How to Start a Startup series at Stanford University, Hoffman summarized some of what he’s learned in becoming a good founder and building the iconic professional network that may slowly be replacing your resume.

(For more startup advice, check out How to Start a Startup: The Book. It’s the ultimate reference guide to creating a successful tech startup.)

Hoffman is the first to say that being an entrepreneur doesn’t require super powers. Patience, perseverance, courage … sure all of those, but no Peter Parker-type super powers.

He said, “Competitive differentiation and competitive edge is super important, but it’s not actually a function of genius.”

Instead he said you have to set yourself up for it with the end goal being to create a company that your audience is happy to buy from and your team is happy to work for.

Go for Co-Founders

Hoffman is not just a founder, he’s an investor and he said that when he’s looking for companies to invest in, he leans toward those with two or three founders. If you break it down, this totally makes sense.

It may go against your “I got this” entrepreneurial attitude that makes you think you can do it all, but just think about the logistics. With two or three founders instead of just yourself, your set of skills is inherently more broad. Hoffman points out that with more than one founder, you can compensate for each other’s weaknesses and attack a diversity of problems.

Rather than letting your inner superhero sneak in, it may be best to tap a team that you can trust to help you take on all that you want to accomplish with your new venture. Just try to avoid picking a team that may lead you to a “messy divorce,” as Hoffman called it. He said that is “almost always fatal.”

Location, Location, Location

Not all big ideas are meant to grow and thrive in Silicon Valley. Just like the film industry is spreading from Hollywood, the tech industry does not entirely take root in the Bay Area. As a founder, rather than defaulting to one of the world’s tech capitals, think about a location that’s best for your business. Hoffman said, “What great founders do is seek the networks that will be essential to their task.”

He uses the example of Groupon, which is run out of Chicago:

“I don’t think Groupon could have ever been founded [in Silicon Valley] … even though it’s a software product. One of the things that was central for Groupon for its early days was having massive sales forces. Silicon Valley tends to be pretty adverse to plans that involve [renting] a 25-story building, and in 20 of those stories [having] floors of sales people.

“That kind of plan here tends to not get a lot of interest … And so it’s actually not a surprise that, in fact, Groupon was required to be in Chicago, which is really good at [that].”

When selecting a location for your business, rather than looking for trends in the tech blogs, get specific and narrow in your type of business. Think about the trends in investors, workflow, hiring and organization, and then consider where your model would flourish.

Quite Contrary

There’s this idea that you have to be a contrarian in all areas in order to be a true trailblazer, but Hoffman says that’s not the case. Well, it’s not exactly the case. In general, Hoffman says, “It’s good to be contrarian.” After all, it’s what helped him push his idea for LinkedIn.

After asking all of the smart people he knew about his idea, he said, “I thought a lot about what … I know that other people don’t know.” For example, most people thought that his idea for LinkedIn was nuts because it was a network product — it wasn’t valuable until it had at least 500,000 to a million people.

Here’s Hoffman’s rebuttal: “What I knew that the critics didn’t know was that I could think of sets of interests in a different way by which people would say … ‘I think a product like this should exist.’ And I could level those sets of interest to grow the network to get to enough size that [I] could begin to deliver on the value propositions which Linkedin had.”

But this is a very specific example. Hoffman said, “Entrepreneurs are usually given contradicting advice, so it’s a matter of knowing when to take certain advice and when to take other advice.” Here are some of those contradictions and what side Hoffman suggests you take, always keeping this nugget of advice in mind:

“Part of what makes a great founder is the ability to be flexible across these lines.”

Take Risks or Minimize Risks?

Short and sweet, Hoffman said, “You have to be a risk taker.” But still, they have to be smart risks, and you have to go into them cautiously and aware. You have to ask yourself, “How do I make a really coherent risk?”

He put up an image of a mouse about to go for the cheese on a trap, but with a little helmet on his head, and then said, “How do I essentially take this risk in an intelligent way that doesn’t just go, ‘Who cares. Let’s go?’ So this [image] kind of combines that.”

Go With Your Vision or the Data?

Hoffman said, “Data only exists in the framework of a vision that you are building. [It’s] a hypothesis of where you are moving to.” He said sometimes your vision will change as a result of what you learn, but you have to stay focused on information that’s aligned with your vision. Numbers can be distracting enough without bringing extraneous ones into the picture.

Do the Work or Delegate?

Unfortunately there’s no clear line here. You just have to know when it’s good to do either. Hoffman said, “In fact, not only do you need to do both, you need to sometimes do one at 100% and sometimes the other at 100%,” even if the math doesn’t quite add up.

Focus Long-Term or Short-Term?

Again, the answer here is both, but don’t let it overwhelm you. You should always have a long-term vision in mind because if you … completely lose your direction, eventually you will find yourself somewhere in field and that’s not a good path. But if you are not focused on solving the problem that’s immediately in front of you — you’re hosed.”

A good exercise could be to go through your daily and weekly to-dos and determine where (if at all) they fall on your path to your long-term goals.

Stay Firm In Your Idea or Pivot?

This is a biggie, and not one to be taken lightly. Hoffman said,

“Part of what being a great founder is, is being both able to hold the belief — to think about what it is you want to be doing and [where you] want to be going —but also be smart enough that you are essentially listening to criticism, negative feedback, [and] competitive entries.”

Hoffman points out that a big part of what will guide you through this and other tough forks in the road is your investment thesis. Constantly keep an eye on your place in the market and your value to it. If that starts to shift, it could mean that you’re losing your product-market fit or that you’re finding one. It’s all a practice in knowing which.

So, Are You a Great Founder?

After all of this, you may be asking yourself that very question.

There isn’t exactly a chart to measure your success. Good founders aren’t all cut from the same mold, which is great because as Hoffman said, “There are different kinds of entrepreneurial companies [and] there are different problems they’re trying to solve.”

One of the most important parts of being a great founder, though, is knowing whether or not you’re on the right track. Not the generic one from the old adage, but your own right track — your investment thesis. Staying on that track takes a culmination of skills all mentioned above. This means occasionally “crossing uneven ground,” as Hoffman put it.

“There is not one skill set. There’s an ability to constantly have a vision that’s driving you but to [keep] taking input from all sources and then to be creating networks all around you.”

Next Steps

You can watch the video and read a full transcript of Hoffman’s lecture here.

Also, if you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out How to Start a Startup: The Book. It’s the ultimate reference guide to creating a successful tech startup.

How to Start a Startup: The Book

Featured image was taken from the video of Reid Hoffman’s lecture at Stanford.

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